before and after

Before & After: Cleaning Vintage Metal Hardware

by Daniel Kanter

Living in an old apartment building and populating my life mostly with vintage stuff that’s seen better days, it’s easy to become a bitter person. Resentful, even. Living this way means that I am in the constant company of ghosts of bad decisions past — of tenants and owners and of several landlords whose interests might have rested more on their bottom lines than on the preservation of their buildings.

Why did somebody choose to line the drawers of this old dresser with such ugly wallpaper? Who made the decision to paint over the entire window in my bathroom — glass and all? Why did the people who lived here before me own loads of cats but, evidently, not a single vacuum cleaner? We may never know. I know their lives are none of my business, but by leaving behind these relics for me to contend with, they have made it my business. And so, instead of demanding answers that I will never find, I privately curse these individuals and go about correcting their mistakes for them.

One of the most common victims of sloppy tenants and sloppier landlords is old metal hardware. Because it would take an extra five seconds or so to unscrew a doorknob or even just tape around it, that step generally gets passed over in favor of just painting the whole door — including knobs, hinges and existing hooks. The same rule generally applies to window sash locks and — well, let’s be honest — anything in sight.

The good news is that stripping and cleaning old metal hardware is really easy and more or less free! It’s a small project, but these details go a long way toward making your whole space feel clean, polished and fresh. All you need are a few basic supplies (that you might already have), and you’ll be on your way to beautiful hardware that nobody will ever know endured such a traumatic past. — Daniel

More on cleaning vintage metal hardware after the jump . . .

For a doorknob, the first thing you’ll need to do is remove the knob. There should be a small screw at the base of the knob holding it to a central rod that runs through the mortise mechanism inside the door. After the screw is removed, it should be easy to slide off the knob.

Then expose the screws on the backplate. Usually, even with many layers of paint, it’s easy to discern where the screws should be, so I find it’s best to scrape away the paint with an X-Acto knife to expose the head. Then use a manual screwdriver (screws on old hardware usually require a small flathead) to remove the screws. Though it might seem like an electric screwdriver would be faster, electric screwdrivers have a tendency to strip old, stuck screws. Apply pressure, take your time and the screw should come loose easily enough.

After you’ve removed all the screws, pry off the backplates. If you don’t want to re-paint the door when you’re done, use your X-Acto knife to cut into the paint around the backplate so that the plate doesn’t take big chunks of paint with it.

For extra points, remove the mortise inside the door, too. This one was removed at some point and replaced upside down (and, consequently, the backplates were then reinstalled upside down!), so it was extra-important to remove this one and replace it correctly.

When you’re done, sweep up any loose paint on the floor. Older layers of paint may be lead-based, so it’s not a good idea to leave pieces lying around where pets or children might decide to munch on them.

There are many stripping products on the market (such as corrosive paint strippers and heat guns), but all you really need for a project like this is a decent sized old pot. It’s probably not a great idea to prepare food in this pot when you’re done, so I picked this one up at a thrift store for $5. If you think older layers of paint might be lead-based, this project is safer with a lidded crockpot on the middle setting overnight. You can often find old crockpots at thrift stores that work great for projects like this!

Fill the pot with water and a few tablespoons of dish soap (no need to be exact!), and throw your painty hardware and screws in! Cover the pot and keep it on low heat, enough for the water to heat up but not enough to boil. Then just leave it there for several hours. You should be able to see the paint begin to bubble and separate from the hardware within a few hours, but it’s good to let it all marinate for about 6-8. Keep an eye on it while you occupy your time with something more exciting, like staring in the mirror and whispering self-affirming statements to your reflection.

When the hardware has been heated for a while, remove it with tongs directly into a bowl of ice water. I’ve skipped this step in the past, but it does seem to make the paint extra-easy to remove, as well as making the hardware easy to handle immediately.

Then just move over to the sink and start removing your paint! Most of it should come off easily with your fingers and the rough side of a sponge, although paint might still cling to small crevices (like screw holes). I like to keep my X-Acto blade (or a flathead screwdriver, or something rigid and pointy) handy to carefully peel off these difficult parts. Be careful, here — you don’t want to scratch the finish! Or cut off a finger.

After you’ve sponged everything down and removed all the paint, dry it off with a towel, and you could be done! If your hardware is on the newer side, it may be nice to give it a final scrub with a product such as Bar Keeper’s Friend. This stuff is mega-powerful, though, so it’s a good idea to start with the back of a backplate or another area that won’t be exposed, just to make sure you actually like the restored finish. For this knob set, I decided to leave the patina as is instead of trying to restore it to like-new condition.

To protect the finish from tarnishing further — or rusting if it’s going in a bathroom — you may want to hit it with a coat of clear matte varnish. And if it turns out that you totally hate the plain metal, or it just doesn’t look right with your house, you can always repaint it with a nice even coat of spray paint. Black hardware on a white door looks amazing.

Then all that’s left is to reattach it to the door, and you’re done! Now you’ll feel fancy and accomplished, and you can stop hating whatever monster(s) caused this mess in the first place!

Daniel Kanter is a freelance writer and designer who blogs about his home at Manhattan Nest.

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  • I think most of us can relate to your post WHY??? Why did previous tenants splash bright red paint up the wall and onto the ceiling and then paint over it with one coat of white paint… YES you can still see it and yes it is a problem.
    What you have done is just beautiful and so lovely. I would stop and look at that beautiful door handle.

  • I was so inspired by this post that I tackled some hardware over the weekend to great success, at least as far as removal from the doors and paint removal. However, one large, heavy, square lock/doorknob combo started rusting immediately, and the other (brass?) bolt locks seem to be as well. Should I have sprayed a coat of matte varnish right away on all the pieces? I was worried about spraying the bolt lock and the bolt not being able to slide, but now the rust is doing that anyway…

    • You could spray the mechanisms (or the entire surface of the hardware) with WD-40. That would take care of the sticking mechanisms and would protect the surface of the hardware. (Just wipe off any excess with a paper towel or the like.)

  • Great tip, will have to try this. One can also soak tarnished hardware in vinager for a while, and then brighten up its finish with 3/0 steel wool. It gives a better effect than Basso,…which will leave green in your detail areas.

  • this is great for flat surfaces. I’m dealing with old, textured kitchen handles that have been painted over with varnish and if that’s not bad enough, they did NOT prep before painting, so there’s ‘gook’ below the varnish. I want to brink it down to metal (looks like it’s brass over steel) and repaint in black.

  • Great article! I like to use a touch of olive oil after as it seems to prolong the period between needing to do a new polish.

  • Does anyone know where I can buy replacement screws? My antique (early 1900’s)backplates and doorknobs look similar to what is pictured and I have some closet doors with smaller handles but many of the screws are missing. I have checked at Lowe’s and they do not carry the odd sizes needed. They said to look on line but I haven’t found any websites yet.

    • I am restoring a 1917 victorian and have found that the large chain stores like Lowe’s and Menards do not carry a lot of items that I need. I have had the best luck with the small mom and pop’s hardware stores. I also use Facebook as a tool. There are rummage/”in search of” pages that you can post items that you are looking for. I also keep my eyes open for homes that are vacant and ask the owners if I can claim the woodwork and hardware from. Most people will let you go in and take whatever you wish but I always offer them something for what I take. Vintagehardware.com is also a great site to search items. Best of luck in your search!

  • What if removing the hardware is not an option and it’s small & intricate (e.g., like on a wooden jewelry box I stained with water based stain. I found that removing the hardware causes it to never tighten as it did originally. I need help with this ASAP!

    • You can make a solution of water and baking soda. I usually use 1 quart of water to 1/4 cup baking soda. Soak a rag in the solution and drape over hardware. You can also try using a Q – tip and work at it if you need to get into tiny areas.

  • Love this pin! I have been doing the same thing (only with a brass brush for tough spots) for many years. Palmolive works best of all dish soaps. If you’re not in a hurry, you can just put it and your hardware covered in water and let it sit for a few days. We are on our fifth house renovation (I really love historic houses), and this has seen me through every single one! And from thrift shop or restoration store purchases.

  • I am rapidly falling in love with your blog and sense of humour! I live In the UK and recently moved into a council flat circa 1940s completely with original coal cupboard, and built in cupboards in the kitchen and bedroom which have a multitude of pendant handles coated in gloss. I have somehow convinced myself that it would be a good idea too strip the wardrobes (icky yellow/white colour) and find out what’s underneath but was pondering the finishing. I now have my answers! Thank you kindly wish me luck.

  • Great article, very useful information, and enjoyable comments! We live in a circa 1902 apartment, and all hardware in it was painted over, as was wooden wainscoting. Our back hall to the cellar was never painted, so we can see how woodwork looked in our place over 100 years ago. Our landlord did work in our building some years ago, removing period features left and right. Solid walls replaced paneled pocket doors, which allowed two smaller rooms to become one large room. Diamond paned windows in the dining rooms were replaced with a single pane windows, and fireplace mantles in every apartment were also removed.

    I know this is off topic a bit, but since all of you seem to love old things “as they were” – why do so many people – including antiques dealers – also PAINT old furniture? Why for example, paint a perfectly handsome Victorian oak dining set? Came across a Craig’s List seller the other day – a dealer – who’s selling a bedroom set from the 1930’s, and who has posted before and after photos. What once was beautiful mahogany is now white, “chippy” she calls it. If a piece of furniture is in really bad, irreversible condition, then yes, paint it I suppose, and historically, furniture was sometimes painted, but – a lot of antique/old furniture is being painted needlessly, for a “look”. We are stewards of the past, are we not? How is slathering white paint over old furniture any less thoughtful than over old. beautiful hardware?

    • Couldn’t agree with you more, Gunnar! It just makes me crazy that so much beautiful original woodwork in homes and furniture is painted white!!!! One of the very best things about my 1922 Craftsman bungalow is all of the original, shellac-finished Douglas fir woodwork and built-ins
      have never been painted (bathroom and kitchen woodwork is painted as would be expected). As long as I am a steward of the home, what has not been painted never will!

  • Thanks for the great idea! Any suggestions on how to strip large metal cabinet doors using this water method?!

  • So what if that little screw to get the door knob out has been painted over so many times that you can’t get at it with a screwdriver??

    • Lana,
      If you can’t get a screwdriver to the screw, you can always take a blow dryer to the screw to soften the paint a bit. That should give you a chance to peel the paint away with a scraper or brush.

  • Great post. Thanks. I have an old cast iron iron from Turkey that someone painted with silver paint. Looks awful. Would appreciate some advice on how to get it off and the best way to finish the iron afterwards.

  • Assuming this can be used on RIM locks……..do you have to dismantle the inside of the lock or can you just put the whole unit in? Does it effect the insides? i.e rusting etc

  • The screws holding most of this hardware likely haven’t moved in quite a few decades so they can be easily stripped if you’re not careful. Using your flat head screw driver carefully scrape any paint from the screw head and groove. I like to add a little Liquid Wrench or WD-40 to coax the particularly troublesome screws out. Save all the screws too! They’ll need to be cleaned just like the rest of the hardware.

  • This is wonderful, but I came to it late. My wife said she had just boiled old hardware in a house she previously owned, so I did that on the knob plates from 2 doors in our 1908 home. When I rubbed off the loosened paint, it appears that parts of the finish (patina?) have come off as well. The knob plates now vary from a dirty, rust color to one that seems to show copper on some parts. How badly did I mess this up? And what might I do to restore a finish that approximates the door knobs (which fortunately had not been painted and thus escaped my abuse…)?

    • Steve, the knobs and plates you are describing from your 1908 home may originally have been a two-tone copper finish called copper flash or copper japanned. It’s a finish that almost looks striped. Internet search on either of those 2 terms with the words “door knob” and lots of images will come up. This was a common hardware finish in craftsman style homes from that era.

  • Thanks to the poster above who mentioned the copper japanning! I just read through this post and the comments before I stripped the hardware in my 1918 home and after parts of the finish looked more copper than brass googled it. They totally have the copper japan finish. Incidentally they look almost identical to Daniel’s knobs in the original post. I just used a toothbrush and some dish soap to clean them up – the japanning is apparently a bit delicate and could come off with an abrasive or chemicals (i.e. bar keeper’s friend).

  • I cannot thank you enough. All I have is a Facebook link to show you the WONDERFUL results I got using your methods, which I did not know existed until I stumbled upon your blog five days ago. My before/after photos of removing DISGUSTING dust-painted-over layers from a heat register really validate your recommendations. Even if you never see the pix, I thank you and congratulate you for your blog.

  • That antique brass doorknob is beautiful. And the work that went in to cleaning it up must have taken you quite a while too! The end result is really quite lovely and gives a special finish to the door as opposed to when it was just painted over.

  • To those wondering about rust prevention, WD40 alone is not recommended. Use Jojoba oil, or some type of light oil to prevent further rust. I was told about Jojoba oil as a rust preventer when I went to the Lie-Nielsen tool works (VERY high quality tool maker) in Maine.
    Just wipe some on and then wipe off the excess. You can keep a rag of it in a plastic bag and just give your newly liberated metals a quick wipe any time you do regular cleaning. Which is apt to be more frequent than the landlords and tenants whose work (or lack thereof) you are cleaning up after.

  • Any suggestions as to what spray paint I could use on my ironmongery? Some of mine is brass when I have taken the layers of paint off and I would prefer to have this matt black.

  • Thanks for the tip! I just liberated some cast iron bin pulls from 90 years worth of paint. The newer latex paint pulled right off, but the older lead paint turned crumbly and chalky and had to be brushed off. Still much easier than if I’d had to use a paint stripper.

    And in defense of landlords everywhere, when you finally get rid of a terrible tenant and you have to spend three weeks cleaning and repairing the space before you can even get to the painting step, taping off the hardware really does take more time than it’s worth. If you’re painting one door, then yes, it’s a matter of seconds, but if you are painting 5 rooms with a total of 9 doors, 19 cabinet doors, 11 built-in drawers, 12 windows, and 2 tin ceilings, taping off takes hours that you don’t have. And honestly, at that point, you just want to get it done and never see the inside of that apartment again.

  • Unscrewing a doorknob is veryyyyy easy task. I hope cleaning the old metal hardware is easier. With your project you inspired me to clean my doorknobs. I love cleaning. It will be such a useful weekend. Best regards!

  • Found your site through a google search for removing an old electrical plate, and your plight is exactly what I’m going through. Not sure why a ghost of landlord past decided to take off the 12″ original baseboards in the kitchen and replace it with…nothing so that the wind blows through the exposed brick. Or why someone thought it would be a good idea to paint my hallway the ugliest shade of orange-brown I’ve ever seen…and get the paint all over the ceiling in the meantime.

    I guess what I mean to say is I feel your pain…in more ways than one.

  • All this info is great! My boyfriend and I currently rent & live in a home that was built in the early 1900s. The house has been rented out since it was purchased by the current owners since the early 80s. That being said, there are layers upon layers of paint on everything. They’ve done a good job doing certain upgrades, but we were not happy w the paint job moving in and the landlords has agreed to pay for materials if we do some work ok the house ourselves. I will gladly do so, as I have experience doing this to an old rental and the bathroom is a disaster.

    I am having trouble taking the screws out of then crystal doorknobs, the metal is extremely soft and is almost stripping the screws completely when I attempt to remove them. The plates were no issue, and neither was the striker. I am so frustrated! Any suggestions?! Thanks!!

  • Such a brilliant idea to restore this old lock. It looks nice, I have been impressed with this vintage design. I have a friend who made everything in his home handmade, and I am sure that he will try this method :))) Thanks for sharing :)

  • I have an old house with vintage door locks that have been painted. After a hundred years or so the knobs no longer throw the bolts. In 2 cases, I have patiently chiseled them out, taken them to a locksmith to have a new spring cut from the metal they use. In both cases the locksmith didn’t replicate the original spring with the result that there is a rather random failure rate wherein the bolt, once again, won’t throw and I have to take the lock out, find the slipped spring and reinsert it, and replace. I’m going to chisel another one out tomorrow and take it in to him as an example of how to cut the new spring. Any shortcuts on getting that one out would be useful since it takes me about a day to get a lock removed.

  • Fantastic results!!!! first time i forgot the laundry soap! still worked!! all the houses, on my small New England street, were built in the 1800’s. many of us are trying to restore as best we can.
    i picked up a large crick pot fir $4!
    we are on our second pot full if hardware!!!!
    now if we can find a less laboring way to strip paint off doors!!!
    any suggestions? the one i am working on now have five layers if colors. the top color has at least three coats, off white covering brown which covered yellow which covered blue!!!! HELP
    Love your blog

    • A possibility is a silent paint remover which is actually good on the wood- brings up the natural resins, and no need to worry about lead (you will if you sand after it…). Still time consuming, but other ways are also…

  • This worked PERFECTLY for our early 1900s bathroom cabinet latch. It only took about a half hour. Thanks!!

  • Hi! This is exactly what my youngest daughter and I are doing today! Our house was built in 1933 and we’re redoing the bedroom of my oldest daughter. The door knobs and backplates have more layers of paint than I can count. I’ve gotten the first knob and backplate off and we found a surprise hidden inside the backplate! A tiny key! It looked brand new and had to have been put in there originally. Why would there be a key inside the backplate? Great post! Nicole Curtis does the same thing on Rehab Addict! Thanks for the step by step :)

  • I did this with the hardware in my daughter’s 80 year old house and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to remove the paint! Polishing the metal? Now that’s another story. Seems like out of every 2 door plates, at least one of them doesn’t clean up well so that’s the one that goes on the inside of the closets :) Very simple process and agree that – why would anybody have painted over these in the first place? We saw blue, black, and white paint on all of these!

    • Lori, hello. You mention cleaning the metal. How did you do that? I trash-picked a beautiful old door last night, and really want to clean the knob and it’s components to reveal pretty details. Can you help? Thank you!


  • Hello, Daniel! First off -I think I’m in love with your blog here. I just subscribed, and that’s not something I normally do. So, I landed here, because I garbage-picked a beautiful, old door last night. This door is probably somewhere between 80 and 100 years old. It is obviously VERY heavy (as it is constructed of real wood with integrity, rather than being slopped together on the cheap using manmade materials, a thumbtack, and a wad of gum.) Really heavy, and just gorgeous. Believe me when I tell you that the effort it took to get it here was second to none. It’s an interesting, almost cosmic, story. This isn’t my blog, however, so I’ll spare you those details. Now that I have my fantastic door, I’m wondering how to clean the knob and hinges. No. They are not painted. They’re rusty, which hides the ornate details. The charm. I’m sure the process is fairly different. I’m most likely going to have to use a chemical, and I don’t like that. Maybe there’s a more natural way to do this. Hoping for a tip or two? Thank you!

  • I know this is an old post and helpful, but odds are anything older than 1978, and especially earlier than the 60s has layers of old lead paint. Might want to research about that even scraping paint off the screw can make enough dust to contaminate a room. Also something is painted with lead paint for that long the lead bonds to it and even after removing the lead paint the bare metal will test positive for lead. Probably do a clear coat, especially on a contact point like a door handle.

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